Miami Dade County Community Forum

Monday, February 21, 2011

Big Cypress Update. By Matthew Schwartz

This is a follow-up to our post of January 19th.

Dear Friends,

First of all, a very big thanks to all who wrote in to National Park Service (NPS) Director Jon Jarvis and asked for maximum protection for the 146,000 acre Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Lands. In spite of our efforts, the plan was signed on February 4, 2011 by NPS Regional Director David Vela and Big Cypress National Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos.

For those just tuning in to this story, the Addition Lands were added to the Big Cypress National Preserve through the Big Cypress National Preserve Addition Act of 1988. After decades of protection as “de facto” wilderness, NPS has decided that the interests of these lands will be best served by opening up 130 miles of off-road vehicle (ORV) trails (plus a still unknown number of secondary trails), three parking lots off Interstate 75 (with 47 trailer sized parking spaces each for loading and unloading ORVs), and a motorized campground. According to the NPS, public access by motor vehicle has never been previously allowed on these lands.

In addition to providing some of the best quality habitat which remains in south Florida for 31 animals and 96 plants listed as endangered, threatened or species of special concern, the Addition Lands form almost the entire western boundary of Broward County. They are easily accessed by a short drive on I-75 from nearly anywhere in south Florida and are in regular use (on foot!) by those who come to experience natural beauty and tranquility on a level unsurpassed in our crowded and, unfortunately, ecologically degraded region. An important section of the Florida Scenic Trail – a 1,400 mile walking trail which connects the Big Cypress National Preserve in south Florida to the Gulf Islands National Seashore in the western Florida panhandle – will be moved to accommodate a new off-road vehicle route through the preserve.

In their Environmental Impact Statement, the NPS predicts their plan will have negative impacts to the Addition's hydrology, wetlands, soils, and plants (including the likely spread of invasive and exotic plant species throughout the Addition). NPS also found likely impacts to endangered and threatened species including the Everglades snail kite, red-cockaded woodpecker, Eastern indigo snake, and the critically endangered Florida panther - all species in rapid decline elsewhere due to loss of habitat.

It should be noted that telemetry of radio collared panthers show the Addition Lands to clearly be the most important panther habitat in the preserve and one of the most important areas in the entire state. Impacts will also extend to the panther’s prey base of white-tailed deer, feral hogs, and wild turkey. Well aware that the area does not provide good habitat for deer due to wet conditions, NPS actually believes panthers and motorized hunters in the Addition could soon be competing for the same scarce prey once their plan is implemented.

In defending his choice of a heavily motorized plan for the Addition, Preserve Superintendent Pedro Ramos recently made the following statement:

“I like to tell people it’s not just different uses, it’s a different mandate from Congress, and it’s not up to us to change the mandate from Congress to manage this place differently than national parks”

Contrary to Superintendent Ramos’s assertion, the Off-Road Vehicle Management Plan written specifically to control and limit ORV use in the preserve has a slightly different take on this congressional mandate:

"The enabling legislation states that the preserve, as a unit of the national park system, is to be managed in a manner that will ensure its ‘natural and ecological integrity in perpetuity.’ The legislation further states the management of the area should be in accordance ‘with the provisions of the Act of August 25, 1916’ (NPS Organic Act). Thus, the natural and ecological integrity of the preserve is the fundamental value that Congress directed the National Park Service to protect."

Consistent with the above mandate, two other units of the preserve – Deep Lake in the west and the Loop Unit in the south – remain closed to motorized recreation for the purpose of resource protection. The majority of the original preserve – 582,000 acres – is already accessible by a large network of primary and secondary ORV trails. With the recent decision, the former balance between motorized and non-motorized areas inside the preserve shifts dramatically in favor what NPS itself calls a "high impact recreational activity".

If you have the ability, we are also soliciting donations for our legal fight. We have retained counsel and funds are urgently needed. Your donation will not only help us with legal expenses (including field work in the Addition documenting current conditions), but will also allow us to participate in other important battles over wildlife habitat in south Florida. Among others, fights over a new residential development in panther habitat west of the preserve (ironically named the “Town of Big Cypress”) and a plan to run three massive powerlines across the eastern border of Everglades National Park are looming. We are also planning a free outings program to bring families and individuals to some of south Florida's unique natural areas. We require funds for program expenses (e.g. insurance) as well as equipment.

Our donation page with a good overview of our concerns can be found here.

Matt Schwartz
Executive Director
South Florida Wildlands Association
P.O. Box 30211
Ft. Lauderdale, FL 33303

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